Charity: Does Apple Do its Share?

Forget what your accountant tells you is tax-deductible. What counts as a charitable donation, ethically?

There have been a few rumbles around the internet recently about the lack of corporate philanthropy at Apple Computers, and about now-retired CEO Steve Jobs’ own lack of philanthropic donations. See for instance by John Cary and Courtney E. Martin, on CNN: Apple’s philanthropy needs a reboot

Apple’s…charitable identity — or egregious lack thereof — disappoints us. It’s time for Apple to start innovating in philanthropy with the same ingenuity, rigor and public bravado that it has brought to its every other venture….

Cary and Martin acknowledge Apple’s participation in the Product Red program (which has raised tens of millions for relief of AIDS in Africa, and for which Bono recently praised Jobs). But Apple made $14 billion in profits last year, and Cary and Martin think it’s pretty clear that Apple is obligated to give some of that away. They’re not so clear on where that obligation comes from, except to point to precedent within the computer industry. Both Google and Microsoft have well-established philanthropy programs — both of which, as Cary and Martin note, have drawn fire. Hmmm.

The interesting thing here is that Cary and Martin’s criticism implicitly raises interesting questions about what counts as philanthropy.

Take, for example, Apple’s sizeable donation to the fight against Proposition 8, California’s anti-marriage-equality effort. Was that a charitable donation, or a piece of political activism? Is there a difference?

Apple has also been known to donate computers to schools, and regularly gives students (and, ahem, professors like me) a discount on computer purchases. Of course, critics will propose that those are really marketing gimmicks. But then, no sane person thinks that corporate philanthropy stops being ethical when it’s a win-win proposition.

But then, back to the issue of why. Why are corporations obligated to give to charity? One group of critics is fond of pointing out that profits belong to shareholders, and so when corporate execs donate corporate funds to charity, they’re giving away other people’s money. And even within the modern Corporate Social Responsibility movement, the saner folks are at pains to emphasize that CSR isn’t about charity. It’s about making some sort of social contribution, preferably one that makes use of a company’s special capacities and core competencies.

And as a recent piece in The Economist pointed out that, if you’re talking about doing good in the world, you really must look at what Apple has done to put beautiful, highly-functional, productivity-enhancing devices in the hands of millions of consumers. That’s not exactly the same as feeding the world’s starving masses, but then neither is a corporate donation to build an opera house, or to get your company’s name on a plaque in the lobby of the local business school. The questions we ought to be concerned with are questions about a corporation’s net impact on the world, and the methods it uses along the way. A focus on corporate philanthropy risks obscuring both of those questions.

23 comments so far

  1. Patrick on

    Amazing piece and one that should really people thinking. At the core, what Apple does with it’s money is absolutely no ones business as long as it is not illegal (i.e. funding terrorist organizations.)

    I for one, can’t stand that people think that companies are obligated to give away money. In their quest for some moral high ground or what they feel is ethics they are really just displaying their own jealously and socialist idealism. If Steve Jobs want to burn $100 bills to keep his house warm good for him, that is his decision and his alone.

    As you mention, charity is in the eyes of the beholder but people need to stop worrying so much about offers and look at their own lives before attacking companies and the wealthy.

    • John on

      I agree that what a company does with its money (aside from illegally burning legal tender) is as much its business as what a consumer does with his. If your competitor gives charitably I am more likely to buy from you. Not because I think you ‘owe anyone’ but because I give charitably and your giving falls in line with my core beliefs. I think we have to look at a company as a whole, however. If you campaign against corporate taxes and give lots to charity you’re okay by me. If you pay all of your taxes and are a stingy giver I fine with that too. But if you campaign against taxes and are stingy (and I do not accuse Apple of this) then I will buy elsewhere. I have little respect for a hypocrite.

    • Rahul Saha on

      i totally agree with you. a firm starts to do business and grow but is not obligated to give out tonnes of money for charity. Politicians in India, Pakistan, China and other corrupt countries should be responsible to use the tax payers money to help development in their country, not Apple or Google giving away money for charity in those countries or their home country.

      Pakistan spreads, produces n encourage terrorism and terrorists to kill millions around the globe, corrupt politicians in India snatch and kill poor and honest people and china suppresses a huge chunk of it population and uses them as slaves paying them nothing but 1 to 2 meals a day and keeps their labor cost so low. And people expect Apple and all other firms to give to charity and the idiotic media spreads a bad word for these firms if they dont just to get some news.

      Apple and other big firms work hard, really hard to be where they are and i dont agree with them doing charity just so that they can buy an image in the market. this is the reason Apple is a great firm and Steve Jobs was great individual.

      Im an Indian,
      Rahul Saha

  2. James Lambert on

    I had a thought similar to yours too. Might there not be companies who consider their core activity, such as selling iPods or such like, as a philanthropic endeavour in its own right. That claim might be a hard sell for consumer electronics but how about firms that sell life-saving drugs?

    I don’t think this point stands up to much scrutiny though. Not because the trade off is win-win, I get medicine the company gets money. But because I think a hallmark of philanthropy is the enfranchisement of people who wouldn’t ordinarily enjoy access to the product in question.

    Banks’ sponsorship of the ballet is philanthropic because it means poorer people can enjoy an art form previously out of their price range.

    Providing aids medication to poor countries is philanthropic because people who otherwise couldn’t afford the treatment now have access to it.

    Philanthropy is about enfranchisement, it can be win-win or altruistic.

    So is all enfranchisement altruistic? I wouldn’t say so. Few of us would count Henry Ford as an altruist just because he made cars cheaper. Or maybe they would.

    Enfranchisement might work a necessary rather than a sufficient condition for philanthropy.

    Is there anything to this?

    • Chris MacDonald on

      James:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m no expert on this part, but I’m not sure it’s true that enfranchisement is the hallmark of philanthropy. I thought the hallmark of philanthropy was voluntarily making other people better-off, in a way that doesn’t involve any quid pro quo (or at least where any return to the philanthropist is strictly secondary). If enfranchisement means giving people something they wouldn’t have had otherwise — well, anything you do to reduce the cost of one item leaves people with more money to buy other items.

      As for Henry Ford… well, deciding whether his motives were altruistic would require more knowledge of the man than I have. But he made lots of people better-off than they would otherwise have been (including his employees, to whom he famously paid what was, for the time, a rather lavish wage).

      Chris.

  3. Jerome Mayne on

    Whether it’s cash money, goods or services that are donated, I think it’s philanthropic. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the donor getting a benefit out of it. Business and marketing strategies that include “giving it back” are constructed all the time. If a company is recognized as being philanthropic, it creates good will; which has tremendous value. Value that makes people want to buy from them. More revenue = more cash, goods and services that can be donated.

    If you or your company wants to “give it back” just because it makes you feel good, good for you. There’s nothing wrong with that either.

  4. Rebecca on

    To first clarify, I really admire companies that have a philanthropic approach. BUT…

    Patrick, I agree with you: It is really no ones business what a lucrative company like Apple chose to invest its money in. I mean, Steve Jobs created this “Empire”. If my next-door-neighbor buys a Ferrari, I wouldn’t knock on his/her door and ask “Hey that’s a very expensive car, why didn’t you give the money to charity instead!?”

    Businesses should of course be hold responsible for what they do, but as long as they don’t do anything wrong/illegal; why bother? Apple is a business – In my opinion businesses exist to provide the society with goods and services, as well as (of course) making money.

    After all, a business is not in business for non-business reasons…

  5. Yuliya on

    Talking about why people care how others spend money, there is a simple answer: because people are curious, especcially when it comes to celebrities and famous people/organisations, their behaviour, things they buy are becoming interesting to big crowds and are being judged by them. Same situation we have with corporations, so the way they spend/donate money create their public image, which is a part of marketing.

    Chris,
    you say in your comment that “the hallmark of philanthropy was voluntarily making other people better-off, in a way that doesn’t involve any quid pro quo (or at least where any return to the philanthropist is strictly secondary)”, but even if the the intention of philanthropists is sincere to make others better-off, it still makes the company better-off as well, becoming a good PR move, so how can we judge Apple? (people usually hide their true intentions even from themselves)

  6. Andreas on

    Jerome Mane:
    If companies act in a way that makes them better off, is this really part of CSR or is it only profit maximization under the cloak of corporate social responsibility?!

    In my opinion the philanthropic approach, as one part of Carroll’s CSR-model, is fulfilled if a company makes charitable donations which improve the quality of the society without making profit out of this action. You think that this is impossible to reach? – I don’t. In every case a company reports charity actions on its website, the company tries to improve the reputation and therefore tries to benefit from this action.
    Have you ever heard of Dietmar Hopp (founder of SAP, Germany)? He really lives the philanthropic approach. He makes monetary donations for many sport clubs, hospitals and other organizations who care about the humans well being without any article in the newspaper and without any statement on the website of SAP. I only found out about this donations because a friend told me that one new and very expensive machine in the hospital he works in, was donated by Dietmar Hopp. The donation was made under the condition, that there is no newspaper article and no sign in the hospital which shows that the donation was made from Dietmar Hopp.

    Sure SAP makes some donations which are discussed in articles, as well. But these donations are no philanthropic ones but (regarding Carroll’s model) ethical ones. In this case SAP does, what is expected from them and doesn’t go beyond the industry norms.

    So in apple’s case a media presence effective donation is no philanthropic donation.

  7. Andreas on

    Jerome Mane:
    If companies act in a way that makes them better off, is this really part of CSR or is it only profit maximization under the cloak of corporate social responsibility?!

    In my opinion the philanthropic approach, as one part of Carroll’s CSR-model, is fulfilled if a company makes charitable donations which improve the quality of the society without making profit out of this action. You think that this is impossible to reach? – I don’t. In every case a company reports charity actions on its website, the company tries to improve the reputation and therefore tries to benefit from this action.
    Have you ever heard of Dietmar Hopp (founder of SAP, Germany)? He really lives the philanthropic approach. He makes monetary donations for many sport clubs, hospitals and other organizations who care about the humans well being without any article in the newspaper and without any statement on the website of SAP. I only found out about this donations because a friend told me that one new and very expensive machine in the hospital he works in, was donated by Dietmar Hopp. The donation was made under the condition, that there is no newspaper article and no sign in the hospital which shows that the donation was made from Dietmar Hopp.

    Sure SAP makes some donations which are discussed in articles, as well. But these donations are no philanthropic ones but (regarding Carroll’s model) ethical ones. In this case SAP does, what is expected from them and doesn’t go beyond the industry norms.

    So in apple’s case a media presence effective donation is no philanthropic donation.

  8. Andreas Smith on

    Jerome Mane:
    If companies act in a way that makes them better off, is this really part of CSR or is it only profit maximization under the cloak of corporate social responsibility?!

    In my opinion the philanthropic approach, as one part of Carroll’s CSR-model, is fulfilled if a company makes charitable donations which improve the quality of the society without making profit out of this action. You think that this is impossible to reach? – I don’t. In every case a company reports charity actions on its website, the company tries to improve the reputation and therefore tries to benefit from this action.
    Have you ever heard of Dietmar Hopp (founder of SAP, Germany)? He really lives the philanthropic approach. He makes monetary donations for many sport clubs, hospitals and other organizations who care about the humans well being without any article in the newspaper and without any statement on the website of SAP. I only found out about this donations because a friend told me that one new and very expensive machine in the hospital he works in, was donated by Dietmar Hopp. The donation was made under the condition, that there is no newspaper article and no sign in the hospital which shows that the donation was made from Dietmar Hopp.

    Sure SAP makes some donations which are discussed in articles, as well. But these donations are no philanthropic ones but (regarding Carroll’s model) ethical ones. In this case SAP does, what is expected from them and doesn’t go beyond the industry norms.

    So in apple’s case a media presence effective donation is no philanthropic donation.

  9. KS on

    Corporate philanthropy is nice but first of all I would wish that Apple stops supporting planned obsolescence (= policy of deliberately planning or designing a product with a limited useful life, so it will become obsolete or nonfunctional after a certain period of time). Producing goods intentionally which can be used only for a certain period of time although it would be possible to create a durable performance ability, in my view, is unethical and disgusting. It forces customers to buy permanently new products, wastes resources and destructs the environment (due to increasing production).
    So, as soon as this problem is solved, we can talk about philanthropic actions of a company. But first of all Apple (and many other corpoartions as well) should show responsibility in their basic businesses!

    • Chris MacDonald on

      KS:

      You’ll have to give an example. I don’t see any evidence of real planned obsolescence at Apple. They do constantly offer product improvements, but old products continue to work. I know lots of people who us old iPods, old Mac computers, etc.

      CM

      • KS on

        Actually you’re right, Chris. I’ve been using my Mac for almost 4 years as well. Nevertheless there is a problem with the iPhone for instance: As far as I know, if you have an iPhone of the first generations you are not able to upload the newest software because it is not compatible with the older generations. So if you wanna have the up-to-date software you are forced to buy a new iPhone although the old one is still working. Additionally the fast development of Apple products influences consumers to always buy new stuff even though it is actually not necessary. And by doing so, Apple forces the competitors to develope new products as well to stay competitive. That creates shorter and shorter product lifecycles and so resources are wasted.

      • Andi on

        First I want to say that I don’t have any Apple devices and I won’t buy any in the future. But…
        I don’t want to destroy your illusion but have you ever tried to install Windows 7 on a Commodore 64?! These computers might still work but not with Windows 7. As long as you don’t provide any evidence that the hardware for all mobile phones hasn’t changed, the example is basically wrong.

        Sure, every company wants to sell its products several times to the same customer but the reason for defect devices is in most cases an other one.

        Many products break down after a couple of years because the hardware in it is cheap manufactured. The reason for cheap hardware is the customer who wants to buy products as cheap as possible. As long as the customer isn’t willing to pay more money for hardware, the companies will use cheap hardware which breaks down after a few years.

        (This statement is no general one. There could be much more reasons but it should illustrate the weakness of the example of KS.)

  10. KS on

    Andi:
    Planned obsolescence exists, believe me! When products break down it is not just because of cheap production. Just have a look here:

    http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/planned-obsolescence-460210

    Or watch this documentary film:

    I didn’t want to blame only Apple. It is the same with Windows. It is a general problem that businesses see the profit first and not acting sustainable…

  11. bjorn on

    I believe that a company should use philanthropy if they have the economical power to do so. I do believe that in times like these where ethics and business has become such a hot topic, corporation could benefit from it. I do think that Microsoft and Apple uses donation for marketing, but so what, as long as it is a win-win situation. People how argue that it is just marketing and therefore unethical should think about the benefit that it brings instead of being so narrow minded.

  12. Michael on

    And I quote, “beautiful, highly-functional, productivity-enhancing”. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, all Apple computers look the same to me. And looks have NOTHING to do with a computers function, or utility. All computers are highly-functional, productivity-enhancing. You sound just like all the sheep we call Apple fanboys. Apple giving computers to schools is nothing but marketing. My in-laws were victims of Apple marketing when my sister-in-law was in grade school. Apple had given her school Apple computers. She just had to have one. Over $1600. I had a Commodore 64 that cost FAR less than the Apple, was a better computer, easier to use, more reliable, etc. You could not give me anything Apple.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      You’re right about the eye of the beholder. But the fact is, millions of “beholders” find Apple’s products beautiful and easy to use. They derive real benefit — both functional and aesthetic. You’re obviously free to think differently, but that doesn’t change the fact that millions of OTHER people feel like Apple gives them something great.

  13. Noyan Jane on

    I’m sorry, I did not read all the comments but some of it already made a bit sick in the head.
    I’ll just say this to everyone here that commented and think that big companies are not obligated to donate money or to chose whether they should or not and in witch way it should be donated.
    here it goes: “Until the last tree died, the last river dried and the last fish got eaten MAN kind will understand that we can not eat money.”
    that been said lets think like this, if if every and each industrial company and every single person in the world did not work or produced products for money and instead just had and that purpose for and exchange of materials for its own sustainability we would see that what Human kind really need from it other its the help to continue to be self sustain.
    Or in other words what i’m saying is that if it did help others given away what we less need ($) this world would be in a stage technologically, mentally and socially 20 years ahead from now and this number would double it each year that we passed from now, the same way that technology doubles every 6 months in our “real” world as we can call it a Capitalist present.
    Hope this can give a good perspective of what the real meaning of living means to each of us.
    PS: I do condemn the marketing strategy of apple faking its donations

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Noyan:

      I’m not sure there’s any evidence at all that could support your “20 years ahead” claim. Capitalism is the only economic system we know of that has ever worked. Others have been tried, but they’ve been miserable failures.

      Chris

  14. amuzick on

    how many of the above posts were left by apple employees, p.r functionaires and other sellers of cupertino propaganda. money is a responsibility of its own – the more you have the more responsibility it carries – frankly the idea that one person dies of hunger on our streets whilst 137bn dithers in bank accounts doesnt work for me. read john donne
    No man is an island,
    Entire of itself.
    Each is a piece of the continent,
    A part of the main.
    If a clod be washed away by the sea,
    The land is the less.
    As well as if a promontory were.
    As well as if a manor of thine own
    Or of thine friend’s were.
    Each man’s death diminishes me,
    For I am involved in mankind.
    Therefore, send not to know
    For whom the bell tolls,
    It tolls for thee.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      I don’t know the answer to that question. But we could just as easily ask how many of the above comments were left by Apple haters. Even more apt would be to ask why it matters?


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